GWCT – ‘I’m only a simple farmer but…’

Dear Teresa

I trust you are well, but I wonder whether you may have been on holiday recently as I’ve received a rather strange letter from one of your staff. It’s about the request, by Wild Justice, that I change the shooting season for Woodcock in England, Wales and Scotland to protect the declining UK breeding population. Your letter doesn’t really seem to add anything to this matter.

Let me deal with the three points in your letter after making a more important point first.

First, and fundamentally, the Wild Justice request asks for the open season for Woodcock shooting only to start on 1 December so that the declining UK population is, shall we say, shielded, by the much larger numbers of continental birds which arrive in late autumn/early winter. Wild Justice correctly cites a GWCT paper published in British Birds less than two years ago which says that shooting should not start until that date. Moreover, that advice is currently on your website, today, I’ve just been looking at it. If you have forgotten it then you can check it here – click here. Now I know I am only a simple farmer but it seems pretty clear to me that GWCT is recommending that shooting of Woodcock does not start until 1 December. Your letter doesn’t withdraw that view, your website still states it, and your recently published paper said that. If you are now resiling from that view then you’d better explain why and on what grounds, please, and put the science on your website. Can you tell me that you are sure that doing what Wild Justice has asked would definitely not help the UK breeding Woodcock population? I’m guessing not, partly on the basis of what is on your website, right now, today, visible to all.

And now to turn to your three ‘points’:

  1. You say that there is an ‘indication’ that shooting pressure has declined but your letter does not provide any evidence or figures to support that view. I’ve got plenty of boffins here in the department and when they say ‘indication’ they usually mean ‘just a hint’ or ‘not very reliable evidence’ – is that what your letter meant? We are in a difficult position here because the UK does not require hunters to report on their shooting totals and so there are no official data on this matter at all. I understand that GWCT has good contacts in the shooting industry but your data are self-reported, non-verified numbers from shooters – nobody would regard those as being highly reliable. They are also very unlikely to be representative of all shooting since your supporters, many of whom are my friends, tend to be at the slightly wealthier end of the scale and may not represent what other shooters do. This point is made much better than I could make it, as a simple farmer, by the highly respected Nicholas Aebischer of your staff in his paper Fifty-year trends in UK hunting bags of birds and mammals, and calibrated estimation of national bag size, using GWCT’s National Gamebag Census where he states ‘In an ideal world, sites would be selected at random from among the pool of available sites, as is the case with, for instance, the Breeding Birds Survey (Gregory et al. 2000; Harris et al. 2018). In a situation where the collection of bag statistics depends on the good will and cooperation of shoots and shooters, and where the pool of available sites is un-known, this is not possible‘. That is the same point that I have made above, is it not? That paper states that ‘…woodcock Scolopax rusticola bags increased by 50% during the first 25 years, but stabilised or slightly declined since‘ – is that what the ‘indication’ is based upon? I don’t think we can rely on that very strongly, can we? And, of course, it does not distinguish betweeen pre-December and post-November shooting so fails to illuminate the point with which I am wrestling.
  2. Your letter argues that any restraint in shooting Woodcock will reduce the chance that suitable habitat measures will be carried out. Really? This is contradicted in your next point when you say that lots of Woodcock are shot in places where they don’t breed – sooooo, which do you really mean? Your letter states that ‘importance of … ‘enlightened self-interest’ in delivering practical, privately funded conservation should not be underestimated‘ but I think we’d both have to admit in private, if not in public, that the importance of ‘enlightened self-interest’ shouldn’t be overestimated either and that there are many examples, in shooting but in other areas too (I have to deal with fisheries remember!) where enlightened self-interest is completely obscured by actions based on short-term selfish gain.
  3. Your third point is that some areas don’t have breeding Woodcock so the birds shot there, at any time of year, must be continental birds. Are you sure? This seems to me, as a simple farmer, to ignore two important points. First, you have stated, and still state, that not shooting Woodcock until after the end of November is a good thing to protect the UK breeding population. So how, all of a sudden, has it become OK to shoot earlier in the year? Second, even with my knowledge of birds, I know that birds can breed in one part of the UK and winter in another part of the UK – indeed I believe this is commonplace. So how do you know, indeed do you know, that birds present in early autumn are not UK breeding birds? If you had tagged a great number of these birds, in non-breeding areas, early in the season, and followed them back to their breeding grounds then there might be something in this but my reading of your excellent study is that the sample size of such birds would be vanishingly small and would not provide me with any confidence that what is conjectured in your letter is, in fact, true.

I wish you had written to me privately because then these matters would just have been between us but you’ve slapped this letter on your website, followed by a request for donations, and so everyone can see it. I’m afraid that it looks such a poorly argued case that it doesn’t make it easy for me to accept it at all. It’s rather difficult to get past the fact that GWCT said (and still says) ‘Don’t shoot Woodcock until December‘ but that when someone else takes notice of that, and let’s be clear, most shooters haven’t taken any notice at all, then you say you didn’t really mean it. People will wonder what else you say when it suits you but then repudiate when anyone takes notice of it, won’t they?

In this case, I will probably come under pressure from Wales and Scotland to act and I will have to have a pretty good case to ignore the case for action. In fact, I wonder if this is a subject on which I ought to give the pesky Wild Justice a win – their case is perfectly fair, based on science (your science, the advice that is on your website still) and is pretty moderate. No-one can argue that shooting Woodcock is of great importance financially and no-one can argue that the UK breeding population of Woodcock is not falling. No-one would argue that shooting can’t be having an impact, and you yourselves suggest that it really might be. Whereas it was easy for us to brush off a petition calling for a complete ban on shooting this Red-listed UK species (see here), it is much more difficult to ignore Wild Justice’s call without looking as though I am pretty uninterested in taking modest measures that could lead to a recovery of declining species and am actually more interested in maintaining outdated, scientifically unjustified shooting practices. I’ll be thinking hard about these matters.

with warm best wishes as always, and I hope you did enjoy your holiday,